The St. Louis Rams have rebounded from a 1-3 start to get to .500 heading into next week's visit to Carolina. While the scoreboard showed a convincing Rams road win, a look behind those numbers shows a good number of areas the Rams need to improve on if they're going to capitalize on this important win.
We'll look at the positives and the negatives, but let's get those problem areas out of the way first. These are potentially fatal mistakes when the opposition doesn't gift wrap touchdowns and field position the way the Texans did on Sunday.
Linebacker discipline: Early on the Rams were getting gashed on the ground with Arian Foster cutbacks and Matt Schaub was finding huge seems in the Rams' zone defense. This was largely due to undisciplined linebacker play.
The Rams' backers were over-pursuing Foster, creating huge gaps for him to cut back. The safeties didn't help by over-pusrsuing themselves, but James Laurinaitis and the linebackers are the first line of defense against the cut backs. To their credit, it looked like they made some adjustments here in the second half. Back side pursuit has to stay disciplined.
Speaking of Laurinaitis, when the Rams go Cover 2 against the pass, his responsibility is to take the proper deep drop and take away the middle of the field. Laurinaitis wasn't doing that well in the first half Sunday. Houston was getting huge gains on deep crosses and inside curl routes, something that shouldn't be there if the middle linebacker is playing his role correctly.
Tackling: This has been a bugaboo for the Rams defense all season. Foster's huge first half was not only a product of wide running lanes, but he extended the plays by running hard through flailing attempts to bring him down in the Rams secondary. If the St. Louis back four aren't going to line up and hit any better than they did on Sunday, make sure you have DeAngelo Williams starting on your fantasy team.
Pre-Snap penalties: We'll talk below about the improvements in the special teams, but the Rams still incurred several pre-snap penalties that put the offense behind the chains. Fortunately, Sam Bradford was able to convert third downs much better on Sunday, but the lack of pre-snap discipline certainly didn't help his cause. Again, this is a fatal error on the road when the opposition isn't committing their own gaffes. Chris Long also had a key offsides penalty that kept a Texans drive alive, a la the Atlanta game.
Now for the good, and there was a lot to take away from yesterday's performance:
Sam Bradford: Bradford probably played more in the preseason than he did on Sunday, but his performance was outstanding. He posted a career-high 134.6 quarterback rating, completing 12 of 16 attempts for 117 yards three touchdown passes. He made the hard throws, like the perfectly-placed strike to Jared Cook to convert a third down on their first drive of the second half. His deep ball to Chris Givens, though dropped, was placed perfectly on Givens' fingertips, right in stride. If he hauls that in, it's an 80 yard touchdown.
Bradford also made the easy throws, especially in the red zone. With the running game opening up play action, Bradford had some wide open targets like Cory Harkey on the Rams first touchdown drive. Bradford hasn't been automatic on these throws, so it was good to see him convert the opportunities.
Zac Stacy: As Rams 101 writer Brent Lancaster described him in training camp, Stacy is a "bowling ball covered with knives." His tough running produced yards even when there wasn't any clear running room. He almost always falls forward, giving the Rams positive yardage. He also showed his ability to catch the ball out of the backfield and did a good job in pass protection. I think Jeff Fisher has found his answer at running back.
Special teams play: No penalties! The Rams return men were able to give the offense good starting field position without getting flagged. This makes a huge difference in the offensive game plan. The coverage teams were equally clean, and forced a turnover that turned into a touchdown.
The Rams had a lot of help from Houston on Sunday, but to their credit, they took full advantage of each Texans' gift. Whether a turnover or a penalty, the Rams made the Texans pay dearly for their mistakes. That's what good NFL teams do.
The victory keeps the Rams viable for 2013 at 3-3. Laying an egg this week in Carolina won't be acceptable, however. Winning two weeks in a row on the road is a tall task, but it's what playoff teams do. We'll see if the Rams have progressed to that level.
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